China probes defeat by Evergrande youth football team

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Chinese authorities have ordered tighter supervision of local football leagues and an investigation into alleged match-fixing following a defeat suffered by an under-15s team from the youth academy of distressed property developer Evergrande.

Evergrande founder Hui Ka Yan in 2012 built one of the world’s largest residential football academies in Qingyuan in southern China’s Guangdong province with the help of coaches from Spanish club Real Madrid.

But the implosion of the highly indebted Evergrande property group has left the academy beset with financial issues over the past 12 months and Chinese media have reported that it has been losing teachers and students.

In early August, a video of the unexpected loss suffered by the under-15s academy team went viral on Chinese social media and sparked suspicions of match-fixing.

The Qingyuan team was winning 3-1 until the 68th minute against another local Guangdong team but ended up losing 5-3. The video showed the Qingyuan team slowing their pace in the second half of the game and only fielding 10 players for more than 10 minutes.

The Chinese Football Association has demanded that match organisers across the country conduct “self-rectification”. A notice issued by the association on August 17 also announced the creation of a task force to step up supervision of local leagues.

The association had already sent an investigative team to Guangzhou a day after the under-15s match. Guangdong’s Communist party disciplinary watchdog has launched its own probe into the alleged match-fixing, saying it would maintain “zero tolerance” for any wrongdoing.

Chen Xuyuan, president of the Chinese Football Association, said on Monday that the alleged match-fixing had drawn attention from the top leadership in Beijing, according to a report by business publication Caixin.

“Match-fixing will not drive progress in Chinese football,” Caixin quoted Chen as telling a meeting that was attended by Du Zhaocai, deputy minister of China’s State General Administration of Sport. “This phenomenon cannot be tolerated.”

Zhang Peipei, a football blogger, said he believed the Qingyuan team had deliberately lost the match, but that many other such incidents went undetected. “Match-fixing is really common in Chinese football but few are exposed,” Zhang said.

Evergrande and its football academy did not respond to a request for comment on the match-fixing allegations.

Hui’s development of the Qingyuan academy aligned with the desire of Chinese president Xi Jinping — an avid football fan — to use the sport to energise the nation’s youth and to deepen its influence abroad.

Under Evergrande’s ownership, professional team Guangzhou FC has won Asian titles and signed international talent such as former Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and Italian coach and former World Cup-winning defender Fabio Cannavaro, who departed last year.

But China’s professional football league has descended into crisis, with other clubs sponsored by indebted companies collapsing and international players departing as the money ran out. China’s zero-Covid policies have also made the country less appealing to expatriates.

Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham and editor of China’s Football Dream, said many developers and businesses had got involved in football for political and commercial benefits, such as better access to development rights and preferential loans.

“Investment in football is a direct money-loser, but there is often ‘indirect compensation’,” Sullivan said, adding that companies could accumulate political “brownie points” with local and central governments. “Because all of these arrangements are opaque and informal, there is scope for corruption in its many forms,” he said.

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